Laura Wexler spoke at the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation Seminar in New York and American Material Culture on Wednesday, November 28, 2012. Her talk is entitled “In Order to Form a More Perfect Likeness: Frederick Douglass, Photography and the Image of the Nation.”

The famed African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was one of the most photographed men of the nineteenth-century. But his engagement with photography extended well beyond his numerous, widely circulated portraits. During the slave era, Douglass heard in the click of the shutter a promise of the shackle’s release: if black people could appropriate by means of the camera the power of objectification that slavery wielded, photography would become an agent of radical social transformation. After Emancipation, Douglass thought that photography could become a tool for remaking the national imagination through positive images of African Americans, and therefore act as a visionary means for change. Douglass’s little-known contributions to a theory of photography as political action is the subject of Professor Wexler’s talk.

Laura Wexler is Professor of American Studies, Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Director of The Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale University. She also directs the Photogrammar Project, an interactive web-based open source visualization platform for the 160,000 photographs created by the federal government from 1935 to 1943 under the Farm Securities Administration and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI). Wexler completed her undergraduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College, having also attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she studied photography. She holds M.A., M. Phil., and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University in English and Comparative Literature. Wexler is the author of numerous articles and scholarly volumes about American photography and visual culture. These include Pregnant Pictures (Routledge, 2000), co-written with Sandra Matthews, and Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism (University of North Carolina Press, 2000), which won the Joan Kelley Memorial Prize of the American Historical Association. She also co-edited Interpretation and the Holocaust, a special issue of The Yale Journal of Criticism (Spring 2001) with Laura Frost, Amy Hungerford, and John Mackay. Her current research interests center upon photographic representations of the politics of white supremacy and resistance to it in the United States. Wexler is now at work on a monograph about race and American visual culture, The Awakening of Cultural Memory Mapping Kate Chopin, and a collection of essays, The Look, The Gaze and the Relay Race: Photography and Everyday Memory. Here she explores of the work of Diane Arbus, Roman Vishniac, and Randolf Linsly Simpson, among others.